WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, April 12, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in light of the Tennessee General Assembly’s recent expulsions of two Democratic state representatives. The lawmakers called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to “use all available legal authorities” to decide whether the Tennessee House violated federal civil rights laws or the U.S. Constitution when it expelled two young Black lawmakers from the legislative chamber last Thursday. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-C.T.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) also signed onto the letter.
On April 6, Tennessee Republicans ousted Reps. Justin Pearson (D) and Justin Jones (D), who represent parts of Memphis and Nashville, respectively, for breaking decorum while protesting at the state capitol in favor of gun safety laws following a deadly mass shooting in Nashville. The Assembly did not expel Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), a white woman, even though she protested as well. Jones has been reinstated by the Nashville Metro Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners — which governs Memphis — is expected to vote on Pearson’s fate this afternoon.
“[W]e do not believe that breaking decorum is alone sufficient cause for employing the most draconian of consequences to duly-elected lawmakers,” the senators wrote before referencing Bond v. Floyd (1966), a U.S. Supreme Court decision that condemned the Georgia House of Representatives for refusing to seat a newly-elected Black legislator for his pacifist views. Schumer and Warnock also cite potential constitutional violations the expulsions may implicate: Article IV’s guarantee to a republican form of government, the 14th Amendment or civil rights statutes’ protections against race discrimination or the First Amendment’s protections for speech and assembly.
“We are deeply concerned that without immediate action by the U.S. Department of Justice, antidemocratic actors will only be emboldened, and we will see more troubling and more frequent incidents meant to unravel our democratic fabric,” the letter concludes.